LauncherOne Diagram.svg
Orbital launch vehicle
ManufacturerVirgin Orbit
Country of originUnited States
Project costUS$700 million [1]
Cost per launchUS$12 million [2][3]
Height~21.3 metres (70 ft)[4]
Mass~30 tons
Stages2 [4]
potentially 3[5]
Payload to 500 km SSO [4]
Mass300 kilograms (660 lb)
Payload to 230 km SSO
Mass500 kilograms (1,100 lb)
Associated rockets
ComparableElectron, Vector-H, Miura 5
Launch history
Launch sites
Total launches1
First flightMay 25 2020
First stage
Diameter1.8 metres (5 ft 11 in) [7][4]
EnginesNewtonThree (N3)
ThrustVacuum: 326.8 kilonewtons (73,500 lbf)
Burn time~180 seconds
FuelRP-1 / LOX
Second stage
Diameter1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) [7]
EnginesNewtonFour (N4)
ThrustVacuum: 26.5 kilonewtons (6,000 lbf)
Burn time~360 seconds
FuelRP-1 / LOX

LauncherOne is a two stage orbital launch vehicle under development by Virgin Orbit since 2007. It is an air launch to orbit rocket, designed to launch "smallsat" payloads of 300 kilograms (660 lb) into Sun-synchronous orbit,[4] following air launch from a carrier aircraft at high altitude. The first attempted orbital test flight was completed on 25 May 2020, but failed to reach space due to an anomaly that occurred shortly after the vehicle's release from a Boeing 747-400, named Cosmic Girl, over the Pacific Ocean.[8]

The original LauncherOne concept, 2007-2015, for a smaller launch vehicle (200 kilograms (440 lb) to low-Earth orbit) was shelved in 2015 and replaced by a larger rocket design capable of putting a 300 kilograms (660 lb) minisat payload in a 500 kilometres (310 mi) Sun-synchronous orbit, suitable for CubeSats and small payloads, with an expected cost less than US$12 million.


Virgin Galactic began working on the LauncherOne concept in 2007,[9] and the technical specifications were first described in some detail in late 2009.[10] The LauncherOne configuration was proposed to be an expendable, two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket air-launched from a White Knight Two carrier aircraft.[11] This would make it a similar configuration to that used by Orbital Sciences' Pegasus, or a smaller version of the StratoLaunch air-launched rocket system.

In October 2012, Virgin announced that LauncherOne would be designed so that it could place 200 kilograms (440 lb) in Sun-synchronous orbit.[12] Virgin planned at the time to market the 200 kilograms (440 lb) payload delivery to Sun-synchronous orbit for under US$10,000,000 per mission,[13] while the maximum payload for LEO missions would be somewhat larger at 500 kilograms (1,100 lb).[14]

By 2012, several commercial customers had signed early contracts for launches signaling demand-side support for new small commercial-oriented launch vehicles. These included GeoOptics, Skybox Imaging, Spaceflight Services, and Planetary Resources. Both Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems were at the time reported to be developing satellite buses "optimized to the design of LauncherOne".[13][15]

In 2015, Virgin Galactic established a 150,000 square feet (14,000 m2; 1.4 ha) research, development, and manufacturing center for LauncherOne at the Long Beach Airport.[16]

The company reported in March 2015, that they were on schedule to begin test flights of LauncherOne with its NewtonThree engine by the end of 2016,[17] but they did not achieve that objective.

On 25 June 2015, the company signed a contract with OneWeb Ltd. for 39 satellite launches for its satellite constellation with an option for an additional 100 launches,[18] but in 2018 OneWeb canceled all but four, prompting a lawsuit from Virgin Orbit.[19] OneWeb filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020.[20]

News reports in September 2015 indicated that the heavier payload of 200 kg was to be achieved by longer fuel tanks and use of the recently qualified NewtonThree engine, but this also meant that the Virgin-developed carrier aircraft White Knight Two would no longer be able to lift the rocket to launch altitude, so in December 2015, Virgin announced a change to the carrier plane for LauncherOne to carry the heavier payload. The carrier aircraft subsequently was changed to a used Boeing 747-400,[21] Cosmic Girl, previously operated by Virgin Galactic's sister company, Virgin Atlantic, and purchased outright by Virgin Group from Boeing upon the expiration of that airframe's lease. The 747 will allow a larger LauncherOne to carry the heavier payloads. The modification work on the company's 747 was expected to be completed in 2016, to be followed by orbital test launches of the rocket in 2017.[22][23][24] It was further announced in December 2015 that the revised LauncherOne would utilize the larger NewtonThree rocket engine on the booster stage, with the NewtonFour powering the second stage.[22]

On 2 March 2017, Virgin Galactic announced that its 200-member LauncherOne team was being spun off into a new company called Virgin Orbit.[25] Also, a subsidiary company of Virgin Orbit called Vox Space was created to carry out business which require strict security requirements.[26][27] As of 2017, the company expected to fly approximately twice a month by 2020.[28]

In September 2017, the first test flights of LauncherOne were delayed to 2018.[28] By June 2018, the VirginOrbit captive carry flight testing campaign for LauncherOne, including a planned drop test of an unfueled rocket, was licensed to begin in July 2018, and could run for up to six months.[29]

In the event, no LauncherOne test flights occurred in 2018 and were delayed further, to December 2019, with only the carrier aircraft beginning to fly in 2018. The first three test flights of Cosmic Girl, including the pylon but not the rocket, happened on 23, 25 and 27 August 2018.[30][31] A high-speed taxi test, with a rocket mounted beneath the aircraft, took place in early November 2018.[32] The aircraft flew its first test flight with both pylon and rocket attached on 18 November 2018.[33][34]

The maiden flight of LauncherOne took place on 25 May 2020. The flight failed a few seconds after the ignition of the rocket due to the premature shutdown of the first stage’s engine caused by a break in a propellant feed line [35], and the rocket did not reach space.


LauncherOne is a two-stage air-launched vehicle using two Virgin-designed and built Newton RP-1 / LOX liquid rocket engines. The rocket has a diameter of 1.6 metres (5 ft 3 in) for the first stage and 1.3 metres (4 ft 3 in) for the second stage and payload fairing.[7] The first stage uses one NewtonThree engine, while the upper stage uses one NewtonFour engine.[7]

In October 2019, the company announced plans to develop a three-stage variant that would be capable of launching 100 kg to the Moon, 70 kg to Venus, or 50 kg to Mars.[5]


Originally, in 2012, the second stage was to be powered by NewtonOne, a 16 kilonewtons (3,500 lbf) thrust engine. It was originally intended that the first stage will be powered by a scaled-up design of the same basic technology as NewtonOne, called NewtonTwo, with 211 kilonewtons (47,500 lbf) of thrust. Both engines had been designed by early 2014, and first articles had been built. NewtonOne was tested up to a full-duration burn of five minutes. NewtonTwo made several short-duration firings by early 2014.[14] Ultimately, however, neither NewtonOne nor NewtonTwo would be used on LauncherOne.

As of 2015, NewtonThree was to be a 260–335 kilonewtons (58,000–75,000 lbf)-thrust engine, and began hot-fire testing by March 2015. In June 2015, reports suggested that a NewtonThree would power the first stage of LauncherOne.[17][36]

By December 2015, Virgin had settled on a design where the first stage would utilize the larger NewtonThree engine on the booster stage, while the NewtonFour engine would power the second stage, and this was confirmed in June 2018 as Virgin Orbit readied for the start of the flight test campaign in the second half of 2018. NewtonThree generate 326.8 kilonewtons (73,500 lbf) of thrust while NewtonFour deliver 26.5 kN (6,000 lbf) to the second stage.[29]

A 25 May 2020 launch failure was attributed to a failure of a high-pressure LOx fuel line in the NewtonThree engine. The broken fuel line caused LOx to stop flowing into the engine leading to the flight being terminated. The issue with the fuel line was addressed though strengthening broken components.[37][38]

Intended usage

LauncherOne is designed to launch a 300 kilograms (660 lb) payload to a 500 kilometres (310 mi) SSO, suitable for CubeSats and small payloads. Virgin Orbit has also announced the ability of LauncherOne to send payloads into heliocentric orbit for flybys of Mars, Venus or asteroids.

Virgin Orbit integrate payloads at their headquarters in Long Beach, California.[4]

Launch sites

Mojave Air and Space Port
Cosmic Girl at Long Beach Airport

LauncherOne was launched from its Cosmic Girl Boeing 747-400 carrier, attached to a pylon on the aircraft's left-wing, and released over the ocean at a location depending on the desired orbital inclination. This process avoids typical delays for ground launches due to weather and upper-level winds.[4]

The carrier plane lifted off primarily from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, but the company also plans to use other airports such as Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Newquay Airport in England, and potentially Ellison Onizuka Kona in Hawaii, Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico,[6] Oita Airport in Japan, Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.[39]

The Vice President of Special Projects William Pomerantz has stated in interview that any airport in the world supporting a Boeing 747 may be used, subject to local legislation, making a truly mobile launch platform.[40]

List of Launches

Past launches

Flight № Date / time
Launch site Payload Orbit Customer Outcome
1 25 May 2020,
19:50 [41]
Mojave Air and Space Port, California Launch Demo with "inert test payload" (Starshine 4) and INTERNSAT (intended to remain attached to the upper stage). Low Earth Virgin Orbit Failure
Flight test, maiden orbital flight. Launch failure after successful release and ignition of the NewtonThree engines on the first stage. A high-pressure propellant line broke causing LOx to stop flowing into the engine. Issue was addressed though strengthening engine components that broke.[38][37] Prior to failure aerodynamics including fins acted as expected.[37]

Future launches

Flight № Date / time
Launch site Payload Orbit Customer
2 October 2020[42] Mojave Air and Space Port, California ELaNa-20 Low Earth NASA
Dedicated launch of 14 CubeSats.
TBD Mojave A&M 1–8 [43] Low Earth Aerial & Maritime / GomSpace
AIS ship tracking
TBD Mojave TBA Low Earth Sky and Space Global
TBD Mojave SpaceBelt 1 [44] Low Earth Cloud Constellation
2020 [45] Kennedy [6] STP (TBD) Low Earth U.S. Air Force
Technology demonstration
TBD TBD OneWeb Satellites Low Earth OneWeb
OneWeb initially had a contract for 39 LauncherOne flights but cancelled all but 4 of them. Each flight can carry one or two satellites to serve as constellation replenishment.[46]

See also


  1. ^ Dawkins, David. "Inside Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson's Small Satellite Bid To Match Musk And Bezos In The Billionaire Space Race". Forbes. Retrieved 6 September 2020.
  2. ^ "Virgin Orbit sign SITAEL contract for LauncherOne satellite launch". Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  3. ^ "Virgin Orbit plans 2018 first launch". 2 August 2017. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Launcherone Service Guide" (PDF). Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  5. ^ a b Virgin Orbit to add extra rocket stage to LauncherOne for interplanetary missions. Caleb Henry, Space News - October 24, 2019.
  6. ^ a b c Clark, Stephen (31 August 2018). "Virgin Orbit nears first test flights with air-launched rocket". Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d Virgin Orbit LauncherOne Data Sheet. Space Launch Report.
  8. ^ - 25 May 2020
  9. ^ Virgin Galactic [@virgingalactic] (2 March 2017). "Our #LauncherOne program has come a long way since we began it in earnest in 2012 (even further since we first dreamt up the idea in 2007)!" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  10. ^ Amos, Jonathan (10 November 2009). "LauncherOne: Virgin Galactic's other project". BBC News. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  11. ^ Rob Coppinger (11 July 2012). "Virgin Galactic Unveils LauncherOne Rocket for Private Satellite Launches".
  12. ^ Lindsey, Clark (18 October 2012). "ISPCS 2012: Thurs Afternoon session". NewSpace Watch.
  13. ^ a b "Virgin Galactic relaunches its smallsat launch business". NewSpace Journal. 12 July 2012. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  14. ^ a b Boyle, Alan (23 January 2014). "Hello, Newton: Virgin Galactic unveils its 'other' rocket engine". NBC News. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
  15. ^ Amos, Jonathan (11 July 2012). "Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to launch small satellites". BBC News. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  16. ^ "Virgin Galactic Opens New Design and Manufacturing Facility for LauncherOne". Space Daily. 18 February 2015.
  17. ^ a b Foust, Jeff (16 March 2015). "Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne on Schedule for 2016 First Launch". Space News. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  18. ^ "Virgin Galactic Signs Contract with OneWeb to Perform 39 Satellite Launches" (Press release). Long Beach, California: Virgin Galactic. 25 June 2015. Archived from the original on 28 July 2015. Retrieved 25 June 2015.
  19. ^ OneWeb's first big deployment launch slips to January Space News - 8 November 2019.
  20. ^
  21. ^ Rundle, Michael (4 December 2015). "How Virgin Galactic will launch satellites from an old 747". Wired UK. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  22. ^ a b Foust, Jeff (4 December 2015). "Virgin Galactic Acquires Boeing 747 for LauncherOne Missions". Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  23. ^ "Virgin Galactic Reveals Boeing 747 For LauncherOne". Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  24. ^ "Virgin boosts rocket capability". 15 September 2015.
  25. ^ Davenport, Christian (2 March 2017). "Richard Branson starting a new venture dedicated to launching small satellites into space". The Washington Post. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  26. ^ "Richard Branson Launches New Company to Compete with Elon Musk". 2 November 2017. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  27. ^ "Vox Space". Vox Space. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  28. ^ a b Henry, Caleb (12 September 2017). "Virgin Orbit still expects to fly twice a month in 2020 despite delayed test campaign". Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  29. ^ a b Baylor, Michael (19 June 2018). "Virgin Orbit readies LauncherOne rocket for maiden flight". Retrieved 26 June 2018.
  30. ^ Guy Norris (28 August 2018). "Virgin Nears LauncherOne Captive-Carry Tests". Aviation Week Network.
  31. ^ "Virgin Orbit performs LauncherOne aircraft flight tests". 28 August 2018. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  32. ^ O'Callaghan, Jonathan (13 November 2018). "Virgin Orbit Just Completed A Key Test of Its Rocket-Carrying Plane". Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  33. ^ Boyle, Alan (18 November 2018). "Virgin Orbit jet aces its first captive-carry flight with LauncherOne rocket attached". Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  34. ^ Virgin Orbit completes successful captive carry test flight with 'flying launchpad'
  35. ^ Clark, Stephen (25 July 2020). "Virgin Orbit traces cause of LauncherOne engine failure to propellant line". Retrieved 5 October 2020.
  36. ^ "Analysis: Virgin Galactic thrusting ahead with satellite launch scheme". Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  37. ^ a b c Foust, Jeff (22 July 2020). "Virgin Orbit identifies cause of engine shutdown on first LauncherOne flight". SpaceNews. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  38. ^ a b Clark, Stephen (25 July 2020). "Virgin Orbit traces cause of LauncherOne engine failure to propellant line". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  39. ^ "Oita Prefecture to Foster Local NewSpace Industry Following Collaboration with Virgin Orbit". Virgin Orbit. 2 April 2020. Retrieved 3 April 2020.
  40. ^ "Virgin is getting close to Orbit".
  41. ^ - 25 May 2020
  42. ^ Berger, Eric (10 July 2020). "Rocket Report: Surprise Israeli launch, Britain decides to bail out OneWeb". Ars Technica. Retrieved 10 July 2020.
  43. ^ Krebs, Gunter. "A&M-1 to 8". Gunter's Space Page. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  44. ^ Krebs, Gunter. "SpaceBelt 1, ..., 12". Gunter's Space Page. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  45. ^ "RocketLaunch.Live launch schedule". Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  46. ^ "OneWeb disputes Virgin Orbit lawsuit, says LauncherOne is too expensive". 8 August 2019.

External links

  • "LauncherOne Service Guide" (PDF). Version 1.1. Virgin Orbit. August 2018. 18-S-1862.
  • "LauncherOne Service Guide" (PDF). Version 1.0. Virgin Orbit. 7 August 2017. 17-S-2156. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 November 2017. Retrieved 1 November 2017.